In its 2012 survey, the Pentagon said 6 percent of military women — or 12,000 — were victims of unwanted sexual contact, which is abusive contact that includes rape. The release of that figure triggered an uproar on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers said the military suffers a sexual misconduct epidemic.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey released last year found almost one-fourth of a percent of women ages 18 to 34 had suffered such abuse in 2010. Preliminary numbers for 2012 show a rate of just over four-tenths of a percent.
The age range roughly, but not perfectly, matches that of women in the armed forces. If the military’s abuse statistics corresponded with the national figures, fewer than 1,000 active-duty female service members would have been victims.
Overall, the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that sexual assault against U.S. women declined sharply over 20 years until 2012, when preliminary numbers show it jumped up to 2008 levels. The number of individual female victims 12 and older plunged 55 percent, to 127,730, in 2010.
Social conservatives who have compared the Pentagon and Justice Department surveys say the disparity can mean one of two things: The armed forces is in the throes of a sexual misconduct wave unmatched in the civilian world, or the methodology of the Pentagon’s email survey is flawed.
Critics of the Pentagon survey say its 20 percent response rate for 2012 may include a disproportionate number of those who are motivated to participate. This might produce a higher number because the response did not capture a true scientific sample of the total female active-duty force, they say.
The Pentagon defends the survey as sound.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and a defense fellow at the Family Research Council, said that if the Defense Department survey and the Justice survey are to be believed, it means military women made up 7 percent of all female sex abuse victims in the country in 2010, yet only a fraction of the population.
“It is wildly out of bounds, and yet President Obama and congressional feminists grasped the results and are jamming politically correct solutions down our military’s throat,” Mr. Maginnis said. “The result in fiscally austere times is to rob other more important training and intimidate our warriors.”
“The Defense Department’s survey results are not comparable to the Justice Department’s survey results because they compare vastly different demographic populations,” the statement says. “When surveys examine all age ranges, the average prevalence is lower than if you just look at certain segments of society. When you look at the military — which is a segment of society — it has higher rates of prevalence than society on average as a whole.”
Comparing apples to apples
The Pentagon said there are better comparisons, such as the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study of undergraduates at two large public universities.
RTI International, a North Carolina research firm, conducted a Web-based survey of 5,446 women ages 18 to 25 and got a 42 percent response rate. It found that 19 percent of women said they had experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college — which could mean over a single year for freshmen and over four years for seniors.